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Warning: fairy tales may damage children

Dr Debby Thacker comments:

Last night, at the Cheltenham Science Festival, according this morning’s news reports, Professor Richard Dawkins said: “I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

This point of view is surprising in a highly educated and cultured individual.  He seems to misunderstand the function of fairy tales, which were not originally intended for children, anyway.  The ‘fantastical’ elements of fairy tales are there to tell a ‘truth’ about life, and it is up to those who read or tell these stories to children to make them aware of the difference between what happens in fiction and what is scientifically measurable (and sometimes those boundaries are blurred).

 The world would certainly be the poorer without fairy tales to play with our understanding of how people treat each other, and to use fiction to help us think about how people exercise power over one another: adults over children; men over women; the rich over the poor; the strong over the weak.  Fairy tales help us think about all of these things.

‘The Frog Prince’ is an interesting story to choose.  It is only when the Princess disobeys her father and throws the frog against the wall that he turns into a Prince.  It isn’t important how probable it is that a frog can turn into a man, but it matters that we think about what it means to stand up to power. We need to keep our magical thinking to help us understand our own relationship to others.

Image: undated painting by Marianne Stokes (1855-1927).


Roy Jackson says:

Dawkins frequently seems to miss the point, and does the same in his attacks on Biblical stories etc. However, this also tells us a lot about newspaper reporting; I went to the talk and he was being rather tongue-in-cheek as well as admitting his uncertainty in his own fragile convictions on this particular point, which doesn't seem to come across in newspapers which prefer snappy headlines.

Hilary Weeks says:

Thanks for your comment, Roy. This blogpost's snappy headline was my own! So I'm contributing to the mean reporting.

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